John Ford (dramatist)

John Ford (dramatist)

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John Ford was an English Jacobean and Caroline playwright and poet born in Ilsington in Devon
Devon is a large county in southwestern England. The county is sometimes referred to as Devonshire, although the term is rarely used inside the county itself as the county has never been officially "shired", it often indicates a traditional or historical context.The county shares borders with...

 in 1586.

Life and work

Ford left home to study in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, although more specific details are unclear — a sixteen-year-old John Ford of Devon was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford
Exeter College, Oxford
Exeter College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England and the fourth oldest college of the University. The main entrance is on the east side of Turl Street...

 on 26 March 1601, but this was when the dramatist had not yet reached his sixteenth birthday. He joined an institution that was a prestigious law school
Law school
A law school is an institution specializing in legal education.- Law degrees :- Canada :...

 but also a centre of literary and dramatic activity — the Middle Temple
Middle Temple
The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, commonly known as Middle Temple, is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers; the others being the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn...

. A prominent junior member in 1601 was the playwright John Marston
John Marston
John Marston was an English poet, playwright and satirist during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods...

. (It is unknown whether Ford ever actually studied law while a resident of the Middle Temple, or whether he was strictly a gentleman boarder, which was a common arrangement at the time).

It was not until 1606
1606 in literature
The year 1606 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*May 27 - The English Parliament passes An Act to Restrain Abuses of Players, which tightens the censorship controls on public theatre performances, most notably on the question of profane oaths.*December 26 - Shakespeare's King...

 that Ford wrote his first works for publication. In the spring of that year he was expelled from Middle Temple, due to his financial problems, and Fame's Memorial and Honour Triumphant soon followed. Both works are clear bids for patronage
Patronage is the support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid that an organization or individual bestows to another. In the history of art, arts patronage refers to the support that kings or popes have provided to musicians, painters, and sculptors...

: Fame's Memorial is an elegy
In literature, an elegy is a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.-History:The Greek term elegeia originally referred to any verse written in elegiac couplets and covering a wide range of subject matter, including epitaphs for tombs...

 of 1169 lines on the recently-deceased Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire
Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire
Charles Blount , 8th Baron Mountjoy and 1st Earl of Devonshire was an English nobleman and soldier who served as Lord Deputy of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth I, then as Lord Lieutenant under King James I.-Early life:...

, while Honour Triumphant is a prose pamphlet, a verbal fantasia written in connection with the jousts planned for the summer 1606 visit of King Christian IV of Denmark
Christian IV of Denmark
Christian IV was the king of Denmark-Norway from 1588 until his death. With a reign of more than 59 years, he is the longest-reigning monarch of Denmark, and he is frequently remembered as one of the most popular, ambitious and proactive Danish kings, having initiated many reforms and projects...

. It is unknown whether either of these brought any financial remuneration to Ford; yet by June 1608 he had enough money to be readmitted to the Middle Temple.

Prior to the start of his career as a playwright, Ford wrote other non-dramatic literary works—the long religious poem Christ's Bloody Sweat (1613
1613 in literature
The year 1613 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*English poet Francis Quarles becomes cupbearer to Princess Elizabeth....

), and two prose essays published as pamphlets, The Golden Mean (1613) and A Line of Life (1620
1620 in literature
The year 1620 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*The Book of Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre with Annotations by Henry Ainsworth is the only book brought to New England by the pilgrim settlers....

). After 1620 he began active dramatic writing, first as a collaborator with more experienced playwrights — primarily Thomas Dekker, but also John Webster
John Webster
John Webster was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare.- Biography :Webster's life is obscure, and the dates...

 and William Rowley
William Rowley
William Rowley was an English Jacobean dramatist, best known for works written in collaboration with more successful writers. His date of birth is estimated to have been c. 1585; he was buried on 11 February 1626...

 — and by the later 1620s as a solo artist.

Ford is best known for the tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
'Tis Pity She's a Whore
'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a tragedy written by John Ford. It was likely first performed between 1629 and 1633, by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Cockpit Theatre. The play was first published in 1633, in a quarto printed by Nicholas Okes for the bookseller Richard Collins...

1633 in literature
The year 1633 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*On May 21, Ben Jonson's masque The King's Entertainment at Welbeck is performed....

), a family drama with a plot line of incest
Incest is sexual intercourse between close relatives that is usually illegal in the jurisdiction where it takes place and/or is conventionally considered a taboo. The term may apply to sexual activities between: individuals of close "blood relationship"; members of the same household; step...

. The play's title has often been changed in new productions, sometimes being referred to as simply Giovanni and Annabella — the play's leading, incestuous brother-and-sister characters; in a nineteenth-century work it is coyly called The Brother and Sister. Shocking as the play is, it is still widely regarded as a classic piece of English drama.

He was a major playwright during the reign of Charles I
Charles I of England
Charles I was King of England, King of Scotland, and King of Ireland from 27 March 1625 until his execution in 1649. Charles engaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England, attempting to obtain royal revenue whilst Parliament sought to curb his Royal prerogative which Charles...

. His plays deal with conflicts between individual passion and conscience
Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment of the intellect that distinguishes right from wrong. Moral judgement may derive from values or norms...

 and the laws and morals of society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 at large; Ford had a strong interest in abnormal psychology that is expressed through his dramas. His plays often show the influence of Robert Burton
Robert Burton (scholar)
Robert Burton was an English scholar at Oxford University, best known for the classic The Anatomy of Melancholy. He was also the incumbent of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, and of Segrave in Leicestershire.-Life:...

's The Anatomy of Melancholy
The Anatomy of Melancholy
The Anatomy of Melancholy The Anatomy of Melancholy The Anatomy of Melancholy (Full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections...

. While virtually nothing is known of Ford's personal life, one reference suggests that Ford's interest in melancholia
Clinical depression
Major depressive disorder is a mental disorder characterized by an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities...

 may have been more than merely intellectual. The volume Choice Drollery (1656
1656 in literature
The year 1656 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*September - performance of The Siege of Rhodes, Part I by Sir William Davenant, the "first English opera"* November 12 - John Milton marries Katherine Woodcock....

) asserts that
Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat,
With folded arms and melancholy hat.

The canon of Ford's plays

  • The Witch of Edmonton
    The Witch of Edmonton
    The Witch of Edmonton is an English Jacobean play, written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford in 1621.The play—"probably the most sophisticated treatment of domestic tragedy in the whole of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama"—is based on supposedly real-life events that took place...

    (1621; printed 1658), with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley
  • The Sun's Darling
    The Sun's Darling
    The Sun's Darling is a masque, or masque-like play, written by John Ford and Thomas Dekker, and first published in 1656.The Sun's Darling was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, on March 3, 1624...

    (licensed 3 March 1624; revised 1638–39; printed 1656), with Dekker
  • The Lover's Melancholy
    The Lover's Melancholy
    The Lover's Melancholy is an early Caroline era stage play, a tragicomedy written by John Ford. While the dating of the works in Ford's canon is very uncertain, this play has sometimes been regarded as "Ford's first unaided drama," an anticipation of what would follow through the remainder of his...

    (licensed 24 November 1628; printed 1629)
  • The Broken Heart
    The Broken Heart
    The Broken Heart is a Caroline era tragedy written by John Ford, and first published in 1633."The play has long vied with Tis Pity She's a Whore as Ford's greatest work...the supreme reach of his genius...."...

    (ca. 1625–33; printed 1633)
  • Love's Sacrifice
    Love's Sacrifice
    Love's Sacrifice is a Caroline era stage play, a tragedy written by John Ford, and first published in 1633. It is one of Ford's three surviving solo tragedies, the others being The Broken Heart and Tis Pity She's a Whore.-Date:...

    (1632?; printed 1633)
  • 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
    'Tis Pity She's a Whore
    'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a tragedy written by John Ford. It was likely first performed between 1629 and 1633, by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Cockpit Theatre. The play was first published in 1633, in a quarto printed by Nicholas Okes for the bookseller Richard Collins...

    (1629–33?; printed 1633)
  • Perkin Warbeck
    Perkin Warbeck (play)
    Perkin Warbeck is a Caroline era history play by John Ford. It is generally ranked as one of Ford's three masterpieces, along with Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Broken Heart. T. S...

     (ca. 1629–34; printed 1634), with Dekker?
  • The Fancies Chaste and Noble
    The Fancies Chaste and Noble
    The Fancies Chaste and Noble is a Caroline era stage play, a comedy written by John Ford, and notable for its treatment of the then-fashionable topic of Platonic love.-Date and performance:...

    (1635-6; printed 1638)
  • The Lady's Trial
    The Lady's Trial
    The Lady's Trial is a Caroline era stage play, a comedy by John Ford. Published in 1639, it was the last of Ford's plays to appear in print, and apparently the final work of Ford's dramatic career....

    (licensed 3 May 1638; printed 1639)

— and probably —
  • The Queen
    The Queen (play)
    The Queen, or The Excellency of Her Sex is a Caroline era tragicomedy. Though published anonymously in 1653, The play is now generally attributed to John Ford — making it a significant addition to the very limited canon of Ford's works....

    (ca. 1621–33?; printed 1653)
  • The Spanish Gypsy
    The Spanish Gypsy
    The Spanish Gypsy is an English Jacobean tragicomedy, dating from 1623. It is interesting to modern readers, students, and scholars principally because of the question of its authorship....

    (licensed 9 July 1623; printed 1653).

As is typical for pre-Restoration playwrights, a significant portion of Ford's output has not survived. Lost plays by Ford include The Royal Combat and Beauty in a Trance, plus more collaborations with Dekker: The London Merchant, The Bristol Merchant, The Fairy Knight, and Keep the Widow Waking
Keep the Widow Waking
Keep the Widow Waking is a lost Jacobean play, significant chiefly for the light it throws on the complexities of collaborative authorship in English Renaissance drama....

the last with William Rowley and John Webster.

And there are possible or questionable attributions: The Laws of Candy
The Laws of Candy
The Laws of Candy is a Jacobean stage play, a tragicomedy that is significant principally because of the question of its authorship.-Date:...

a play in the canon of Fletcher
John Fletcher (playwright)
John Fletcher was a Jacobean playwright. Following William Shakespeare as house playwright for the King's Men, he was among the most prolific and influential dramatists of his day; both during his lifetime and in the early Restoration, his fame rivalled Shakespeare's...

, may contain much of Ford's work. Scholars have also considered The Welsh Ambassador and The Fair Maid of the Inn
The Fair Maid of the Inn
The Fair Maid of the Inn is an early 17th-century stage play, a comedy in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. It was originally published in the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647...

as in part the work of Ford.

In 1940, critic Alfred Harbage
Alfred Harbage
Alfred Bennett Harbage was an influential Shakespeare scholar of the mid-20th century. He was born in Philadelphia and received his undergraduate degree and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He lectured on Shakespeare both there and at Columbia before becoming a professor at Harvard...

 argued that Sir Robert Howard
Robert Howard (playwright)
Sir Robert Howard was an English playwright and politician, born to Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Berkshire and his wife Elizabeth.-Life:...

's play The Great Favourite, or The Duke of Lerma
The Great Favourite
The Great Favourite, or the Duke of Lerma is a stage play written by Sir Robert Howard, a historical drama based on the life of Francisco Goméz de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma, the favourite of King Philip III of Spain...

is an adaptation of a lost play by Ford. Harbage noted that many previous critics had judged the play suspiciously good, too good for Howard; and Harbage pointed to a range of resemblances between the play and Ford's work. The case, however, relies solely upon internal evidence and subjective judgements.

External links